Panda diplomats: can you put a price on cuteness?

How China uses pandas to help secure long-term trade deals.

The pictures of the 14 baby panda cubs born at a breeding centre in Chengdu in China were published around the world. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by their cuteness (in my completely objective view) –  but can you attach a monetary value to how adorable they are? A report by Cambridge University suggests you can. It explores the way in which China uses loans of giant pandas to strengthen its trade relations and secure long-term, multi-billion pound contracts for the raw materials it so desperately needs.

The lending of Tian Tian to Edinburgh Zoo in 2010 occurred alongside negotiations over a ₤2.6bn deal to supply China with salmon meat, land rover cars, and petrochemical and renewable energy technology. China’s 2012 panda loan to France coincided with a $20bn trade package, and the loan of a pair of pandas to Canada was perfectly timed with China’s $2.1bn purchase of the oil sands company Opti Canada and the purchase of seal meat. China is particularly hungry for uranium, because of its plans to expand its production of nuclear power, and this accounts for panda loans to Australia and France, according to the report’s authors.

Similarly, China has asked for loan pandas to be returned as a way of signalling discontent with other governments. For instance, China asked for two US panda cubs to be returned after China warned that if Barack Obama met the Dalai Lama, this would damage trade ties.

One of the reasons pandas are such useful diplomats is because of how popular they are with zoo goers, firstly because of their distinctive teddy-bear like appearance, and secondly because they are rare – there just under 2,000 left in the world. A panda loan attracts a lot of positive publicity for China, and domestic zoos can expect increased ticket sales and merchandise deals.

When China first started exploring the potential of panda loans, it sought to profit in a more direct way, charging local zoos $50,000 a month as a fee, as well as a percentage of merchandising sales. Even today, China retains ownership of any cubs that are born overseas, and charges $500,000 if a panda dies due to human neglect.

Their usefulness as goodwill ambassadors is good news for pandas, too – it gives Chinese authorities an extra incentive to keep up captive breeding projects and protect the remaining 1,600 wild pandas. 
 

New-born panda cubs displayed on a crib during a press conference in Chengdu, 23rd September 2013. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP/Getty Images
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How the refugee crisis became invisible

Since the failed coup in Turkey, there are on average 200 refugees a day arriving in Greece. But the world's media has gone home.

The image was familiar for the volunteers in Lesvos that still man the beaches where refugees arrive by boat from Turkey. It’s been many months since boats carried 256 people in a single day across the narrow passage of sea. The refugee crisis seems to be giving way to much larger geopolitical issues to the east of the Greek coastline. Those refugees stuck here might soon be joined by the thousands that remain in Turkey as the situation in Syria deteriorates. There is no solution is on the horizon for the bloodshed.

Almost 300 people arrived that Thursday last week, a number not seen since a deal between the EU and Turkey was reached this spring to curtail the flow of refugees heading for Europe. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey last month, however, something has changed. 3,300 people have arrived on the islands of the eastern Aegean since, according to the official data released by the Greek state, averaging around 200 a day. Reports on the ground suggest that the traffickers operating in the area are expecting a new wave of refugees leaving Turkey soon, a card for Tayip Erdogan to play in his bid for visa-free entry to Europe for Turkish citizens.

Since the deal – and unlike last year, which saw more than a million people passing through Greece and heading up the Balkan corridor towards Germany and the prosperous north – the crisis has taken a new shape, and it’s now largely invisible. Lesvos, the island formerly seen as the frontline of the refugee crisis, is unseen, abandoned by the media and the tourists that used to be its main source of income.

The refugees unlucky enough to be stuck in Greece after the borders to Macedonia closed are distributed in camps across the country. The camps established at the points of arrival, known as “hotspots”, are overcrowded to breaking point, with violence often erupting between refugees, locals and the police. Instances of violence against unaccompanied minors by police were even recorded in the Moria camp in June.

Now, for the close to 60.000 people who in limbo while their asylum applications are processed, it’s a waiting game that looks more like prison than anything else. Meanwhile, deportations back to Τurkey have effectively stopped because of the political insecurity and terrorist attacks there, despite the fact it is still deemed a “safe third country”.

Forty-nine camps have been set up across Greece, but the government has announced that more are on their way. Local business owners in Crete have already protested the news of a camp for 2,000 refugees established on the island. After what happened in Lesvos the tourism industry – arguably the country’s most important, contributing close to 10 per cent of the GDP – is nervous.

Inside the camps, reports of overcrowding, poor hygiene, illness, violence, trafficking and drugs are on the rise. Even in Greece, Yazidis are not safe in the camps, and special arrangements have had to be made for them. The Greek and Albanian mafias have infiltrated camps on the mainland, especially around Thessaloniki, and are pushing hard drugs, which have become a solution for some of the refugees stuck there. Around the downtown area of Victoria in Athens, reports by the BBC and Refugees Deeply have found underage boys prostituting themselves in the nearby parks for 5 euros.

Here is the real problem: while the numbers arriving are nowhere near those of last year, the infrastructure available to take them in is now so strained that every new arrival counts. The margin for the most vulnerable between safety and harm, has narrowed to nothing. The Katsikas camp, near my hometown in north-western Greece, paints a grim picture. Set up hastily on the site of an old military airport, it is almost entirely unsuitable to host the simple military tents the refugees are expected to live in. The ground turns to mud every time it rains, and it rains often. There are scorpions and snakes wandering the camp.

Living conditions are so horrible that according to the camp’s director, Filippas Filios, 200 people recently walked out and abandoned it, preferring to try their luck crossing the Albanian or Macedonian borders on foot. From the 1,020 people that were transported here between March and April, just 520 remain. Another space is being prepared to take those remaining before September – an abandoned orphanage. Unlike most of Greece, the weather here is rainy and cold. If preparations stall and they are caught outside, these people are unlikely to remain in the camp under such conditions. Traffickers who have been active in the area for decades, are banking on just that.

The EU, via Angela Merkel saying that “we must agree on similar deals with other countries, such as in North Africa, in order to get better control over the Mediterranean sea refugee routes”, is hinting at a similar deal to that with Turkey to try and deal with the flow from Libya. With the current arrangement looking shaky, and those living with the consequences being ignored or even blamed for their predicament, we are on perilous ground. There is hardly anything more that Greece can do.

What’s worse is that in the last few months – under pressure from the EU – the Greek government has been dismantling the solidarity networks that alleviated much of the weight of the crisis last year. But they too, where they still hold, are creaking under the weight of the situation. The conditions in some of these informal camps resemble those in the official camps. The more these people are trapped in either situation, the more likely they are to become victims again, be it of trafficking, drugs or violence. For now, the pro-refugee sentiment still holds in Greece, but the illusionary structure of a “dealt with” crisis might come crashing down sooner than most realise.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.